June 2011

Geronimo: What's in a (code) name?

It wasn’t long ago – less than 15 years, in fact – that one could drive through the Four Corners and encounter business signs with slogans like, “We’ll save you wampum,” and, “We won’t scalp you.” Cartoonish depictions of Indians with enormous hooked noses and big headdresses were also in evidence on neon signs over motels and car dealerships.

Long after the days when a former restaurant chain stopped decorating its walls with murals of “Little Black Sambo,” long after it had been deemed unthinkable to show Negroes with bones in their noses or watermelons in their hands, American culture still either shrugged or smiled at demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans.

Just when things seemed to have changed, when the offensive old signs had largely come down and there seemed to be a heightened awareness of the diversity and vibrancy of Indian culture, and the country had a black man in the White House who surely understood the dispiriting effects of prejudice – we heard our President speak these jarring words:

“Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden.”

Yes, it emerged following the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1 that the military team charged with ferreting out the terrorist had dubbed him Geronimo, after the 19th Century Apache leader who battled the U.S. military for decades before his capture.

In response to the furor that arose over this nomenclature, the Department of Defense offered the feeble explanation that the name had been chosen “at random,” according to the Associated Press. There was no explanation of how this master list of random names had been generated or who else was on it. (Gandhi? Mandela? Patrick Henry? Luke Skywalker? Probably not.)

Then there was a brief attempt to say that it was not bin Laden but the operation that killed him that had been code-named “Geronimo,” but there remained the inconvenient truth that President Obama had told “60 Minutes” interviewer Steve Kroft that it was the reviled terrorist himself who was code-named after an Apache fighter.

Amidst cries of protest from Native American nations, including the Fort Sill Apaches, Seminoles, Onondagas, and Navajos, a few apologists opined that the use of the name was a sign of respect for Geronimo.

“It sounds to me like a salute to the Apache warrior’s leadership genius and his tribe’s organizational success,” wrote nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page. He added, “Each was a charismatic leader by example of a decentralized organizational structure that long-stymied much mightier and formally organized armies.”

Yeah, right. Americans thought of bin Laden with respect. That’s why he was described in news stories after the killing as the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, a mass murderer, a coward, and one of the world’s most hated men. If you think this was an honor, ask yourself whether you’d feel honored if bin Laden had been named after you. And remember, as one user pointed out on a Facebook page devoted to the controversy, Geronimo has descendants who are alive today. Would most of us care to have a forefather equated with someone as loathed as Adolf Hitler?

Now, we’re sure the choice of “Geronimo” as a code name for bin Laden was not intended as an insult to Native Americans. Rather, it was a thoughtless oversight, an example – as one of our Navajo friends described it – of the disconnect between mainstream America and Indian country. But once the White House was made aware that this blunder had angered many of this nation’s indigenous peoples, President Obama or someone else high in the administration should have apologized. What is so difficult about simply saying, “It was a stupid mistake and we’re very sorry”? It would have been a genuine sign of respect.

Instead, there were excuses and nonsensical explanations, then an apparent decision to ignore the matter. Never mind the fact that some of the most patriotic people in the nation have been Indians, proudly serving in the military – remember the Code-Talkers? But apparently this carries little weight. A cynical interpretation might be that Natives constitute just a tiny minority of the population, after all, and aren’t likely to sway an election.

So what Native Americans are left with is the fact that no one in power cares to hear their concerns about having the name of a notable historic figure — and an Apache hero — used as a label for a terrorist. In all the hoopla and hurrahs following the death of bin Laden, it was just too easy to overlook anything that might detract from the celebrations.

It may seem like a small matter, but it’s not. For Indians, this is just one more slur, one more demeaning and dispiriting expression, on top of centuries of insults and lies.